Politics & Government

Thin U.S. job market translates study abroad into work abroad

Mongolia is one place Peace Corps volunteers have served
Mongolia is one place Peace Corps volunteers have served Bruce C. Strong / Orange County Register

WASHINGTON — As job prospects thin at home, American college seniors and recent graduates are looking overseas for work, even of the unpaid variety.

Organizations that send volunteers abroad are noticing a significant jump in applications for their programs compared with earlier years.

Applications to the Peace Corps are 16 percent higher this year, and late last year twice as many Americans applied to CUSO-Voluntary Service Overseas, Canada's largest volunteer-based international development group, compared with the same period in 2007.

Looking abroad is just one way that the young are trying to cope with the worst economic landscape of their lives.

Volunteers also are traveling nationwide. Teach for America saw a 50 percent increase in applications last year for its program, which sends college graduates to teach in under-funded school districts.

A month after President Barack Obama's calls for more service inspired a flood of volunteering at nonprofit organizations across the country, the lack of paid work at home seems to be inspiring a surge in volunteer service abroad.

When job prospects falter, young graduates gravitate toward "doing something meaningful rather than perhaps doing something menial," said Katherine Stahl, the executive director of American University's career center in Washington.

Students who graduate this spring will find themselves "looking at one of the worst job markets in recent memory," said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the nation's pre-eminent institutions, which often sees lines of recruiters each spring pursuing graduates, reports a 15 percent decrease in recruiters on campus while internship offers and projected salaries are shrinking, said Melanie Parker, MIT's executive director of employer relations.

Because new graduates see volunteerism as a boost to job prospects, they reason that the experience offsets lost incomes and travel expenses incurred abroad.

Stacey Hollis, a Warren Wilson College graduate and Peace Corps applicant, said that Peace Corps service was "a way to have a one-up" over other job seekers, plugging her into a network of past corps members and demonstrating her passion and commitment to larger goals.

"I think that young people are savvy and do see how beneficial it can be," said Laura Lartigue, a Peace Corps spokeswoman.

It's a discussion starter in job interviews and a way to avoid gaps in resumes, said Susan Ellis, founder of Energize Inc., a Philadelphia-based volunteer association that coordinates overseas and domestic service.

Young volunteers also earn moral capital by devoting significant time to volunteering overseas.

"There's absolutely a halo effect," Ellis said.

For-profit teaching overseas also is seeing a boost among college grads. At the Teaching English as a Foreign Language Institute in Chicago, teacher training has increased by 50 percent in the last six months.

Despite the global economic downturn, schools in developing regions are "throwing money at people to come," said Bruce Jones, a spokesman for the institute.

Graduating teachers without domestic job offers and recent graduates of master of business administration programs are deciding to "ride out the storm" by completing a six-week program before heading overseas to teach, Jones said.

The Internet also is fueling interest for these tech-able grads. Traffic for Idealist.org, a networking and employment-listing Web site for volunteer and nonprofit organizations, increased by 22 percent in the last four months. After the site experienced a 500 percent growth in new user profiles last year, ads promoting volunteer opportunities rose by 40 percent.

However, one organization saw its inquiries jump while its applications remained stable.

Amanda Masello, the marketing and communications director at United Planet, a Boston-based organization that specializes in sending volunteers overseas, thinks she knows why.

"A lot of them are holding on to the hope that there might still be jobs out there," she said.


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